Pioneering theatre company Complicite returns to the Barbican theatre to weave its magic with an epic Japanese myth, Shun-kin, where love and violence, beauty and cruelty all become entwined.
Inspired by legendary Japanese writer Jun’ichiro Tanizaki’s A Portrait Of Shun-kin, Complicite tells the story of Shun-kin across three time periods. In 1829 the girl Shun-kin is born; in 1933 a man is obsessed with her story and follows the paths she once crossed through Kyoto and Osaka; in the present day a woman in the midst of an affair with a younger man is in a studio recording the audio tape of the story, entranced by the tale of the cold-hearted girl.
Born into a wealthy household, Shun-kin is blinded at the age of nine and sentenced to a life of constant darkness. Spoilt and cruel, she demands the family’s apprentice Sasuke to be her guide, constantly at her beck and call, her shrill voice screaming for him at her every whim. As Shun-kin and Sasuke grow older, Shun-kin’s whining and petty requests become more sadistic as she physically beats him, the lines between violence and sex becoming blurred.
Although the pair are lovers, Shun-kin refuses to marry a lowly servant, instead keeping Sasuke as her slave into old age, never allowing him to know anything but the twisted abusive love she offers, always testing the extent of his love and devotion through her cruelty, until his final gruesome sacrifice.
Performed in Japanese with subtitles, the story of Shun-kin is so engrossing it is easy to relate to the other characters, who are obsessively piecing together the girl’s life. Although the story is a myth, Complicite’s vivid, beautiful staging entices the audience into a world where this all could be possible. Working with Blind Summit theatre, the cold, but beautiful Shun-kin is portrayed with puppets, her white ceramic mask and brightly coloured kimonos contrasting against the rest of the dark set and costumes, lit only by candles and the desk light of the narrator’s table. As Shun-kin grows older, she becomes more and more real, finally emerging as totally human, moving and speaking without the control of the two puppeteers.
Characters act out repetitive actions simultaneously as if engaging in a beautiful dance, reflecting the repetitiveness of Shun-kin and Sasuke’s days. Their strange, selfish and abusive love affair is the only thing to show for their lives; even their children are cast off to strangers without another thought.
Set to the sparse and atmospheric music of Shamisen – a Japanese stringed instrument – Complicite uses unique staging techniques to tell the story. Pictures and shadows are projected on to a huge wall behind the cast, crisp white paper becomes fluttering larks and vivid coloured kimonos float across the stage like ghosts.
Whether it is possible to relate to the sadistic, inhuman Shun-kin and believe Sasuke could love such a seemingly heartless woman is questionable, but the story is told with such passion and beauty that the man’s obsession with the tale, as he desperately tried to find a fictional character’s grave in 1933, feels utterly understandable.